Older generations of gardeners who love roses might know the name Sam McGredy. One of the most famous rose breeders of the last century, Irish-born Sam, who was the fourth breeder in his family with the same name, sadly died in 2019, aged 88. When interviewed a few years earlier he was asked what the future of roses would be. His answer? “Go ask Ping.”
Who is Ping Lim?
The story of Ping Lim, America’s and perhaps the world’s, most famous modern rose breeder, is an all-American story of passion, determination, and hard work in a new country by a new arrival. It was not the new lands that inspired Ping’s love of roses, because that began when he was a child in his homeland – the south-east Asian country of Laos. One day the young Ping was taken by his parents to the highlands of that tropical country. There, in the cooler climate, he saw his first rose, and it was love at first sight. Growing up in a war-torn country, devastated by bombing during the Vietnam War, Ping was even more inspired when he learned that the name of that first magical rose was ‘Peace’. A world-famous French rose created by Francis Meilland just before World War II, it was only released when that war ended, so there couldn’t have been a better symbol for an ambitious and spiritual young man.
Ping’s father was a successful businessman, and fearing the changes coming to his country when the communist Pathet Lao came to power in 1975, Ping was sent to university in Taiwan. His father wanted him to study medicine, but Ping wanted flowers instead, and graduated in horticulture.
Seeking peace and stability he migrated to America and found his first work in San Francisco as a translator. In the fall of 1981 he stepped onto the first rung of his ladder to rose success, and became Rose Research and Breeding Assistant at DeVor Nursery in California.
The Maverick Mentor
At DeVor, Ping was taken under the wing of Jerry Twomey, an older breeder born on the Canadian Prairies, who was considered a crazy maverick by many but a genius by others. Twomey’s goal was to create the ‘universal rose’ – a bush that could be grown anywhere, by anyone, and would bloom like crazy. He understood the importance of starting a rose breeding program with the right roses, but how to find them? Twomey decided to use ‘trial by fire’, so he planted a field in California with many different roses, in conditions where roses shouldn’t grow. This area was sometimes cold and wet, and other times blisteringly hot and dry – how could any plant make it? When they became diseased and devoured by pests, he did nothing, and gradually a few began to stand out – the Spartan army of survivors he needed.
Twomey made many crosses among his’ survivors’ in 1979, and the arrival of Ping meant they raised and tested them together. In 1991 they picked two – Sheer Elegance™ and Love and Peace®. That second rose was bred from Ping’s first love, the ‘Peace’ rose he saw as a child, so nothing could have been more appropriate for launching his career. It would later win him his first All-America Rose Selections Award. Since then there have been many awards recognizing his breeding achievements.
Expanding Knowledge and Experience
While learning the secrets of rose breeding, Ping also worked for a commercial grower of cut roses, Mt. Eden Floral Company, and quickly rose into management. The understanding of the commercial rose world he gained at that time would be vital for his future success. During those formative years he also attended many symposiums and meeting of rose growers and breeders around the world, making valuable contacts and picking up knowledge and skills.
Ping’s career really took off in 1992 when, recommended by Jerry Twomey, he became Rose Research Director for Bailey Nurseries. That large wholesale nursery had sensed a revival of rose-growing was coming, and they put Ping in charge of their new rose breeding program. He moved north to a breeding center in Yamhill, Oregon, a state with a great rose-growing climate.
With over 200 species of roses around the world, and half of them found in China, it was obvious that Ping would find himself drawn to that country for inspiration and the all-important new genes that rose breeding needs. Already becoming known within the high circles of roses, he was one of only five Americans chosen in 1997 to be part of the Rosa Species Search toChina. A combined enterprise of the US Department of Agriculture and the Chinese Government, the team of the world’s top rosarians spent three weeks crossing that vast country, searching every environment and climate zone, looking for new species.
Being a fifth-generation family business, Ping found at Bailey an American family who took him in, and for them he created a group of roses that combined the classic look of 20th century hybrid tea roses with the 21st century ability to grow for any gardener without the constant spraying and careful tending those oldies need.
Easy Elegance® Roses
Hybrid Tea roses have the familiar high-centered look of a florist rose, with many petals, and Ping’s bushes often put back fragrance too, but on easy-care plants similar to the bushy landscape varieties called Shrub Roses. These were the style of the new roses he created for Bailey Nurseries. Marketed as Easy Elegance®, Ping says they have ‘Chi’, the ‘breath of life’ at the heart of Buddhist philosophy. These plants are ideal garden roses for all gardeners, because they look just as good in a vase as they do in a garden bed, while flowering over a long period and growing well with just some basic care. Resistant to the major rose diseases of black spot and powdery mildew, they open up a new world for ordinary gardeners, putting roses back where they belong – in every garden across the country.
Ping Lim Today
After the economic downturn of 2008 Ping launched his own business, Roses by Ping, to market some of his creations directly as both plants and cut flowers, and to coordinate his consulting and writing projects. In 2012 he joined Altman Plants, one of America’s largest growers, to take his ‘Hybrid Tea Shrub Roses’ further. Every year the team Ping leads crossed 30,000 roses in 2,000 different combinations and raised 300,000 seedlings. Among all those plants just six made the final cut – good rose breeding is mostly about what you throw out – and they are hitting the market as True Bloom™ roses, another step on the road to the perfect universal rose that is the dream of today’s grand-master rosarian.
It is good to know that a new generation, children of the creative 1960s, are rising to the top of their fields, and that the future of the rose is safe in the hands of someone like Ping Lim.
***If you want to check the availability of any of the plants mentioned here, go to our Home Page, click on the ‘Search’ button in the upper right, and type in your choice – both common names and botanical ones will work. If, sadly, you find the item sold out, click on the ‘notify me’ box beside the size you want, and you will get an email the moment that plant is available again – it’s easy.